The feds break promises with a West Coast pipeline deal

Environmentalists and natives are let down by a new natural gas project, but the deal itself is on shaky ground.


Pacific NorthWest LNG’s projected site on Lelu Island

The honeymoon may not be over yet, but this week Justin Trudeau let environmentalists and Indigenous communities know that there seems to be little room left for them in a bed lined with the profits of resource industries.

With the announcement that the federal government had conditionally approved a $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG (liquid natural gas) project on Lelu Island, on B.C.’s northern coast, Trudeau took his first big strides away from promises he made during climate talks in Paris to work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The project will not only violate his promise to First Nations groups to keep pipelines out of the Great Bear Rain Forest, its much flaunted cap on carbon dioxide emissions from the project will still allow for the addition of 4.3 million tonnes to the province’s annual GHG output, not including another 5 to 8.7 million tonnes in “upstream” GHG production caused by the fracking, transportation and processing needed to get the gas to the plant.

The project, which would raise B.C.’s 2014 greenhouse gas production of 63 million tonnes by 15 per cent, comes just weeks after the province promised to have total emissions down to 13 million tonnes by 2050. The LNG project alone would produce more than three-quarters of that target, according to the Pembina Institute.

Environmentalists fear this is just the first major tear in the Liberal Party’s green facade, with a decision expected shortly on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver.

Environment minister Catherine McKenna suggested the increased CO2 production would be offset by efforts to implement a carbon tax and a pan-Canadian climate plan she is negotiating with the provinces, but Canadian GHG reduction targets are already shaky even without the addition of what Pembina describes as a project that will become the “largest carbon polluter in Canada,” outstripping both Syncrude’s oilsands operations and the Sundance coal-fired power plant.

To offset the GHG production of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, Pembina says McKenna would have to get 1.9 million cars off the road, or about one car in 11. And the fresh water used in the fracking and production of the gas will be the equivalent of the annual residential use of Fredericton, N.B.


There’s a very good chance that the Pacific NorthWest LNG project is on as shaky ground as the Liberals, however, as low world energy prices threaten the economic viability of the project for Petronas, the Malaysian government-owned oil and gas company that leads the development consortium. LNG prices have dropped by two-thirds as production has increased around the globe. And with 190 conditions attached to environmental approval by the Trudeau government, Petronas has yet to say whether they’ll go ahead in a market where supply is expected to exceed demand by nearly 30 per cent before the plant and pipeline could be built.

Added to the uncertainty are plans by some First Nations groups — which are split over the project — to legally challenge the development, which could further delay potential start-up timelines.

McKenna, however, has met with consortium officials repeatedly this year and presumably has a pretty good idea of where it stands. According to Desmog Canada, Pacific Northwest LNG “lobbied the federal government 22 times” between Feb. 1 and April 21 alone, including meetings with McKenna and Marlo Raynolds, her chief of staff (and former executive director of the Pembina Institute).

Would the Trudeau cabinet have pressed ahead with the conditional approval of the Pacific Northwest project without some assurances from Petronas that it would move forward with a risky $36-billion investment? That seems like a large gamble for a government that could lose substantial support from Indigenous communities and environmentally concerned Canadians as a result.

Either that or this is a clever stratagem to make it appear as if the Liberals are supporting resource development while helping create conditions that ensure the project doesn’t go forward. This way they look like they’re supporting the West, B.C. Premier Christy Clark in particular (in exchange for her support on carbon pricing), but can blame Petronas or market conditions when the project doesn’t move forward.

Maybe, in the end, Trudeau hasn’t climbed off the fence but has simply invented a new way to straddle it. Stay tuned. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.